I looked up at the autumn sky, obscured by weeping clouds, the ground slick with wet leaves smelling of sweet maple. Thirty-six of us from around the world had gathered here, at Omega Institute, to learn how to use Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) to treat ourselves with kindness and trade self-criticism for self-acceptance. The course was lead by Self-Compassion pioneers, Dr. Kristin Neff, of the University of Texas at Austin and Dr. Chris Germer, of Harvard Medical School.
Our classroom was next to Omega’s Eco Machine, a water reclamation system that cleans all the water from Omega’s campus (about 52,000 gallons per day from toilets, showers and sinks) naturally using microscopic algae, fungi, bacteria, plants and snails.
Yes, the classroom smelled like sewage, appropriate as we were processing our own refuse – the sorrows, sadness and regrets accumulated over a lifetime. Just as the foul wastewater was turned into life giving fuel for the plants and animals, we were fueling our souls, excavating the landscape of the heart by exploring the treasure – joy, meaning, self-love, optimism and wisdom – beneath painful memories and past hurts. As Peter Gabriel wrote so eloquently, we were digging in the dirt:
Digging in the dirt
Stay with me I need support
I’m digging in the dirt
Find the places I got hurt
Open up, the places I got hurt
Instead of the sewage digested and transformed by snails and bacteria, we digested our own soul sludge and transformed it into healthy, positive energy with MSC practices like Soothing Touch, Affectionate Breathing and Loving-Kindness.
One morning I was late to class. I had developed a bad blister walking the 250-acre campus in new boots. The blister throbbed with each step, squawking at me in a voice of pain that as a college athlete and personal fitness trainer I had been taught to ignore.
Before my Mindful Self-Compassion course, I would have followed the familiar, “No pain, no gain,” mantra and limped along down to the mess hall. By afternoon I’d have more pain and a burst, bloody blister to deal with. But the MSC intonation: “Be kind to yourself, give yourself what you need,” had sunk in. I listened to my foot, stopped at the Wellness Center for a Band-Aid and took two minutes to care for my foot. Sock back on, I continued my journey, pain free, thanking my boots for keeping my feet warm and dry instead of cursing them for giving me a blister.
Four years later, not only am I still practicing Mindful Self-Compassion… I now teach MSC with amazing results. The clients who I share the practices with are happier and more resilient, optimistic and joyful and less depressed, anxious and stressed. As we work together the self-loathing (a familiar companion for many of my clients, especially those with body image and eating issues) disappears and self-blame, shame and self-criticism dissipate considerably. They discover that self-compassion is a powerful resource available 24/7 that we can turn to handle life’s scrapes – failure, imperfection, interpersonal conflicts, health challenges… that are all part of being human.
Of course I still get scrapes. Recently, I hurt the middle phalanx of my middle finger on my right hand. I’m not sure how it happened, probably a burn that I didn’t ice immediately or a nick from something sharp. Initially, I ignored it. But then I kept bumping that finger while cooking and cleaning, constantly opening the scab up so it couldn’t heal properly. The wound started growing larger until it had doubled in size and had become painful and infected.
My middle finger was talking to me: “Pay attention, take care of yourself, it whispered.” Curious and open, rather than judgmental, I started babying it, observing my skin, the largest organ in the body. Healing my finger became a priority. I kept it warm and dry, applied Reiki and Bacitracin and re-bandaged it several times a day. I also asked for help doing the dishes and cleaning countertops. My wonderful husband happily pitched in. My teenagers did not. Even the power of Mindful Self-Compassion has its limits.
It took about a month (I’m getting older, and just don’t mend as quickly.) but finally my finger healed. As a Wellness Coach, I’ve always advocated aging with grace, beauty and ease, but I realize no matter how well you care for your body… aging is inevitable. It’s that common humanity thing again. None of us can avoid it. I do everything right to live longer & healthier—eat right, exercise, sleep, release stress and develop strong relationships—and my body still ages as my eternal witness watches the transformation.
Recently my ophthalmologist told me, “You have baby cataracts.” Do I diaper them?
Self-compassion has helped me love and accept my aging body… and now toddler cataracts. Aging is normal. Taking longer to heal isn’t a personal failure, its just life. My skin is thinner and mends slower because there’s less supportive collagen and fewer sturdy blood vessels to feed it nutrients. My own experience with healing has also helped me feel more compassion for others, especially my father who at 85 has translucent, paper-thin skin that seems to tear if you look at it the wrong way.
However long it takes to mend, I’m learning to appreciate the miraculous healing process even as I give myself compassion for how hard it is to let go of youth.